Charles Leach

 Alternatives to invasive plants
Third in the series

A brown-thumb-proof marginal,
inside potted plant, patio plant, bedding plant,
and filler around taller plants

Zephyranthes candida

by Charles Leach, Ohio USA
Click images to enlarge

Giving a plant to my mother was practically a death sentence for the unfortunate plant. Perhaps it was that she alternated between over-watering or fertilizing and forgetting to water them for extended periods, or some toxic aura she emitted, but they almost all eventually died. When she was forced to move into a nursing home, someone gave her a plant that she placed in the window sill and watered faithfully for a change, perhaps because the nurses reminded her to do so. When we visited she would point out with pride how well the plant was doing and tell us how she watered it every day and turned it so that all sides got sunlight. We didn't have the heart to tell her it was a plastic plant. We didn't give her one to check it out but Zephyranthes candida, also known as the zephyr lily, fairy lily and rain lily, might have survived her brown thumb almost as well as a plastic plant.

The white zephyr lily will survive just about anything but a hard freeze of its bulbs. Given that, plus the fact that it produces an abundance of easily stored tubers, we give small pots containing three or four sprouted bulbs away to visitors to our water gardens. "This is our thank you for visiting gift," we say as we hand them out.

We then proceed to tell them that it can be used as a marginal with up to an inch or two (2.5 to 5cm) of water over the crown, as a house plant, as a patio plant, or in a flower bed in full or part sun. We always conclude by saying, "It will not withstand winter unprotected outside," and finish by giving them the following options for wintering it over.

1. You can bring it in as a house plant in a location where it will get sunlight at least a couple of hours a day or be lit by a grow light for a few hours a day.

2. You can bring it in and stop watering it so that it dies back to a bulb that will spring to life when watered in the spring.

3. You can remove the bulbs from the dirt, let them dry overnight and store them over the winter in a cool place or in the refrigerator and replant them in the spring.

4. In our area (zone 6) they will usually survive winter outside if very heavily mulched.

We always conclude by saying something such as "The only thing you can't do is allow the bulbs to freeze" but every year people return to say that they had one last year that didn't survive winter unprotected outside. Guess my mother isn't alone in having a brown thumb.

Zephyranthes candida is native to South and Central America and supposedly as far north as southern Texas, but has naturalized in the United States as far north as Tennessee. It is sometimes referred to as a rain lily because, when it grows in an area with a wet and dry season, it goes dormant and springs back to life when rains return. Not long after springing to life, clumps of bulbs can be covered with flowers (photo top of page) and flowering can continue until the return of the dry season. Even if there is not a mass flowering, individual flowers are quite attractive and the rush-like foliage is attractive when there are no flowers. 


The photograph at the left of the plant without flowers shows a clump of plants in a 6" (15cm) diameter pot in our sunroom that was taken at the end of January. As indicated by the ruler the clump is about 12" (25cm) high and wide and as you can see the leaves are green enough to remind one of spring that is still weeks away.

In addition to using the white zephyr lily as a thank you gift for visitors, we use it as an inside and outside potted plant, as edging in flower beds, as a marginal and as a filler around tall flower bed and marginal plants such as swamp milkweeds. Before a hard freeze we move the remaining potted zephyrs into a greenhouse or into our house, where the temperature remains above freezing, and allow them to dry down. It may take several weeks but eventually the foliage turns brown and the bulbs are ready to harvest.  
At this point we can just remove the dirt from the bulbs and store them. When collecting bulbs from plants that are still green it is necessary to cut off the leaves close to the bulbs and allow the bulbs to dry down for a day or two before storing. The photo at the right shows a clump of bulbs that formed around one original bulb. There is no rush to do anything with the dried down bulbs. We sometimes just throw them in a bucket until we have time to deal with them. (We have had bulbs that we didn't get around to dealing with remain viable well into spring.)  


We usually store them in a refrigerator or pot them in dry soil, leaving them in a cool shady place until warm weather returns. Then, given water, they start growing. We plant three or four bulbs in pots the size of a small drinking cup and six or seven in a 6" (15cm) pot. I don't know how long bulbs stored at room temperature will remain viable but, while putting this year’s bulbs in a refrigerator, we found a container from last year still there. Upon opening it I found that, although there was some mold, most of the bulbs had green sprouts.

Although the white zephyr lily has naturalized in many parts of the United States and the world, I know of nowhere that it is considered an invasive weed. Although it propagates readily from bulbs, it doesn't spread by rhizomes or runners or, in our experience at least, by seeds. Even with pots of them nearly everywhere, we have yet to have a volunteer come up anywhere.

If you are looking for a beautiful, versatile, non-invasive plant, you would be hard pressed to find a better one than Zephyranthes candida

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